From Grain to Glass, Balvenie’s Labor of Love

by Keith Savage · 1 comment

Aging Whisky at Balvenie Distillery

Sarah and I sat in the hotel’s conference room surrounded by family, friends, and more than a few tables loaded with gifts. The night before we’d been married, and I was now in the sweaty grip of a half bottle of Macallan 10 as it grinded its way through my liver.

Plates of crudité and croissants drifted past my hazy vision and I alternated between looking at the ceiling and the floor. Sarah happily cracked open boxes of roasting pans, vegetable peelers, and tea kettles. Then, a familiar cylindrically-shaped gift presented itself and I perked up. We unsheathed a gorgeous bottle of single malt Scotch whisky: Balvenie Single Barrel 15, a gift from my mom and dad (oh, they know me too well).

Fast forward nearly four years. Our wine and whisky rack holds that same bottle of Balvenie, now three quarters empty. As much as I love whisky, it takes me a long time to work through my stash, especially with those bottles that I love. And I loved this whisky.

Unconscionably, I had missed the Balvenie Distillery on three previous spins through Speyside, and I would rectify that on this trip. Balvenie’s home of Dufftown is more well known for its brother whisky, Glenfiddich, which is perhaps the most ubiquitous whisky in the world. Both are the offspring of William Grant, a strident lover of whisky and all its rare crafts. In the late 19th-century, he left the Mortlach Distillery after learning the art of distilling, bought a barley field beneath the glowering ramparts of Balvenie Castle, and founded the Balvenie Distillery.

I arrived to the distillery on a brisk Friday morning a little late but ready for a dash of whisky school. Ten in the morning might sound early, but one of whisky’s greater qualities is that it can be enjoyed at any time of day (ahem). I strolled through pines to a cottage where I met David Mair, Balvenie’s brand ambassador and wizard of all things whisky. He showed me to a comfy leather chair and poured me a cup of coffee. I wanted to be best friends with him immediately. A group of Danish guys joined us and then the tour began.

Balvenie adheres to the old ways of making whisky, and as a result they are one of – if not the – most self-sufficient distilleries I’ve visited. They grow much of their barley right next door at Balvenie Mains and even malt a percentage of it on their malting floor. There are only about five distilleries left that malt their own barley. Advances in technology, the growth of spirits conglomerates, and improved transportation have rendered it too costly to maintain a malting floor at each distillery. It’s a time-consuming and physically brutal process, but it’s very cool to see it in action.

When David takes us to the kiln, I’m warmed to see a pile of peat in the corner. Most of the malt is dried using smokeless anthracite coal, but Balvenie uses a rare pinch of peat here and there. It’s at this point that I feel my love of Balvenie deepen and shine in justification. I’m a big believer in passion growing out of process, and seeing the way whisky is made at Balvenie leaves me wondering what’s not to love.

We pass through the mash tuns, washbacks, and stills, and I learn that Balvenie even retains a personal coppersmith. The shape and size of a distillery’s stills play a huge part in the character and flavor of the resulting whisky. God forbid those stills ever change because what you’ll get on the back end ten years later will be a different spirit.

The surprises continue when we arrive at Balvenie’s private cooperage. Most distilleries in the Speyside region use the Speyside Cooperage just down the road. Not Balvenie. They employ a team of coopers who are responsible for building, repairing, sealing, and toasting barrels. The sound of hammers, adzes, and torches is deafening here.

Journeying into the warehouse, the heady perfume of aging whisky has me wondering if I can slip David’s watchful eye and become a squatter amongst the barrels. The air is cool and filled with sweetness, floral airs, and a pleasantly heavy cologne of oak and earth. In the lower level, three open casks await us. Everyone fills their own 20cl bottle of whisky from the Sherry butt. Cask strength and untouched by another hand, I don’t know if I can let myself drink it. It’s hidden in my closet now.

The three-hour tour ends in a bright tasting room overflowing with glasses and bottles. We start with a splash of newmake spirit – spirit that’s been distilled but not yet aged. It’s clear, very strong, and holds some of the flavor notes the final product will have. David walks us through the expressions, starting with Doublewood 12 and moving to their Signature 12. The Doublewood balances the honeyed vanilla of Bourbon oak casks with the spicy dark fruit of Sherry butts. It’s wonderful and wonderfully easy to find in the States. The Signature adds in refill Bourbon casks that give the whisky a mellower flavor and nose. The rich dram lingers for ages.

Here we change gears and tackle my wedding whisky, the Single Barrel 15. Amid flashbacks of drinking it at home, I revel in the strong vanilla and honey flavors with a dash of citrus fruit. It’s a stronger whisky, bottled at %47, and each bottle is from single American oak cask. The PortWood 21 follows, and its gentle and creamy. The Port shows itself in raisiny, nutty, dry notes. We finish with the Thirty. This is an epic dram with the rich sweetness of dark chocolate, caramelized apples, and toffee hinting at its age. The nose is tender and oaky, and the finish goes on and on.

As a whisky maker, Balvenie simply does things other distilleries don’t do. They grow and malt their own barley, they retain their own coppersmith and cooperage, and they have the longest-serving malt master in the business. It all blends together to create the strongest line of whiskies, in my humble opinion, in the industry. Let Balvenie be your next dram.

Practical notes: The distillery can be tricky to find as the signage tends to blend into the surroundings. If you’ve entered Dufftown you’ve gone too far. Tours are available twice a day on weekdays except Friday, which has one tour in the morning. This is a seriously in-depth and long tour, and it’s great for whisky nerds like me. If you’re aren’t into whisky, you might want to think twice before booking this tour. Oh, and booking ahead is essential. Please tell David I said hi.

Full disclosure: I received a complementary tour and 20cl bottle of cask whisky. All thoughts expressed here are my own.

KenNo Gravatar July 7, 2011 at 2:53 PM

Nice virtual tour. The Balvenie is one of my favorites. You have to respect the people and process that produces such great whisky. Balvenie for sure on my next trip to Scotland.

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